Wednesday, January 26, 2005

One Month On: Memory And Catastrophe

The earthquake-tsunami catastrophe struck exactly one month ago. I spent some quiet moments earlier today thinking about that day - when the building I live in started swaying menancingly and we were evacuated, and then the gradual realisation that something really terrible was unfolding. Those quiet moments were an interlude in drawing together memory and catastrophe.

Perhaps we will never be able to exhaust finally the meaning of the catastrophe but somehow we strive to understand what happened and we need some mode of accounting. There are many things that could be said - and have been said - about those events and their aftermath. The sheer scale of death and destruction simply beggars belief: over 300,000 likely to be dead and the absolute carnage in Aceh. The lingering fear of disease and psychological damage. The incredible generosity of people around the world in solidarity with the suffering. The mixed reports about the relief efforts that, in some places, have averted a "second wave of death" while elsewhere have been mired in incompetence and petty corruption. The belated recognition by regional leaders of the need for an effective
tsunami early warning system. The unprincipled and contradictory opportunism of some commentators to harness the catastrophe to their own political hobbyhorses. The political implications of the crisis especially for conflict-ridden societies like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The deep philosophical, indeed sometimes theological, coming to terms with death on this scale. And, slowly, the return ... the return of the fisherfolk to the sea, the return of the children to school, the return of life.

This terrible catastrophe must never be normalised and forgotten, as so much of the daily living catastrophe of people's lives seems to be (especially in our region). Memory and catastrophe, together, issue a particular challenge to all of us. This is not about a vapid over-extension of the idea of "collective trauma" in which everyone, far or near, is seen to have suffered and survived together. This is too promiscous and ultimately meaningless. The suffering of some people has been real and material. There is a differentiated world of hurt and harm. And it is best we recognise that truth and act from it.

We are not yet in the afterlife of the catastrophe ... it's too soon and who knows how long the material and psychological wounds will take to heal. But one thing is safe to predict. The way we remember these grim and tragic events will have a major impact on the issue of living in an unjust world where death and destruction are endemic. Remembrance is important - we need ways of remembering - but it is not enough in itself. More than this, the ways we construct a new solidarity in the
actions of humankind - glimpsed occasionally in people's responses to the recent suffering - will weld together the possibility (if no more than that) of a world of greater justice and equality.


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